The Facts About Food Allergies

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When I was young, I sometimes claimed an “casein,” and eggs can appear on a label as “albumin.” Avoiding breads and cereals is relatively easy for those with a gluten allergy. But traces of wheat can be found in some lunch meats, soy sauce, soups, malt vinegar — even jelly beans. These minute amounts are not always listed on the ingredient panel.

On Jan. 1, 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act went into effect. This law requires manufacturers to identify wheat and other grains to which people may be sensitive on product labels. Potentially allergenic substances must be identified by commonly known names — so no longer will you need to know that lactalbumin contains milk.

Yet even with the new law, declaring every ingredient can be a daunting task. Minute amounts of allergenic substances can be used to make spices, and some manufacturers who use them may not realize they contain an offending ingredient. Further, sometimes the entire list of ingredients won’t fit on a particular food label.

When food companies are unsure of potential ingredients, their labels often indicate that the product “may contain” a certain ingredient.

Companies change formulas, and it is a constant challenge to make sure your foods are free of allergens. For example, simply changing lecithin to soy lecithin makes the product unacceptable for anyone with a soybean allergy.

Consumers who are extremely sensitive to a particular item should make it a practice to contact manufacturers to make sure the offending ingredient is not contained in products they buy.

Most anyone with food allergies can tell you about their favorite brands that are free of offending allergens. Specialty food manufacturers understand what their clients need.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Meals prepared away from home are not routinely labeled with ingredients. The most frequent reactions to foods occur in a restaurant, or as a result of food carried out from a restaurant.

When eating out, keep it simple and avoid anything that is unknown. Ask questions, and consider printing up a card with a list of your allergies for your waiter to share with the chef.

If you’re not certain about an item, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid that food. Also keep in mind that highly sensitive people can have reactions due to cross-contamination from a piece of equipment. For example, using the same fryer for french fries and seafood could bring a reaction for someone highly allergic to seafood.

Here are some tips to avoid allergic reactions:

  • Avoid salad bars or self-serve buffets.
  • Stick to prepackaged foods that are clearly labeled.
  • Find support groups, and swap recipes and names of favorite allergen-free brands.
  • Let all your friends and family know which foods they should avoid in your presence.
  • If you’re unsure whether you have an allergy or hypersensitivity, withdraw the food for two weeks, than reintroduce it to see if you have a reaction.